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by Miriam English


17. dolls

The phone rang. He picked it up. "Hi, Marc here."

The receptionist said, "Hi Marc. There's a weirdo on the line wanting to talk to the designer about a special sex doll they want to commission."

"Thanks Nettie. Oh, and it might be a good idea not to refer to our valued customers as weirdos, just for future reference."

"Okay. You call them what you want. I'll put her through."

Her? he thought. Damn, I hope she doesn't want a male doll. I hate making those things. They never look quite right.

The phone clicked and a woman spoke in a cultured, but warm voice, "Hello?"

"Hi. I'm Marc, one of the designers."

"Hello Marc. My name is Olivia. I was wondering if it's possible to order a doll with certain customisations."

"Certainly, Olivia, They will cost more than the stock models of course."

"Oh, money is no object. I'll need as many of these as you can build. I expect you will need to expand your manufacturing facilities. I shall pay for that too. Can I email you the alterations I need for my dolls?"

Holy crap! A rich weirdo! "Absolutely, Olivia." He told her his email address. "You can send the modifications any time you're ready and we'll talk further then."

"If you don't mind, I'd prefer to talk further now. I've just now sent the details. Are you near a computer?"

Marc was surprised, but spoke as if this happened every day. "Just checking my email now." He swapped the phone to his other hand, grabbed the mouse and opened his email program. There was indeed a new email from Olivia. It had several attachments that showed lots of technical details he couldn't understand. "Yes, I have the email with several attachments. Would you like to go through them with me?"

"Yes, thank you. Firstly I should say that the main reason we chose your company is because of the realistic quality of your dolls. You'll notice, from the images, that we want to take the natural look further, with a slightly more rounded shape for the dolls, with wider hips and waist, and smaller breasts."

Marc said, "More girl-next-door, less porn-star."

"Exactly. As well, we want to make some technological changes also enhancing their realism. You're free to keep the changes, if you like them, for your other future customers. We're placing them all in the public domain. Now, the first one is a modification to the interior of the dolls. We need them to use a silicone sponge that is to be saturated with a special silicone oil, which will solve the problem of skin shrinkage."

Marc was amazed by this. Skin shrinkage was a problem they'd been trying to solve for some time now, without much success.

Olivia went on, "You'll notice that the oil contains a red pigment. That's to give the skin a realistic color, and it is a pigment rather than a dye so that it doesn't discolor the skin. The pigment also helps stop leakage if the skin is punctured -- it, well, clots."

"Amazing," said Marc.

"All the details are there, but if you need further clarification feel free to contact us any time, day or night, week day or weekend. Now, moving along to the next attachment, you'll see some changes to the skeleton. We have a design for an extremely strong fiber/foam composite. The joints are especially important because... looking at the next attachment now, we need the dolls to have self-powered movement."

"Animatronics? Um, Olivia, I have to say we looked carefully into animatronics a while back and concluded that it was impractical, unless you want the doll to be tethered to a power outlet by a cord."

"We understand that, which is why we have included some of our own developments here too. You won't have seen anything quite like it I'm sure. I assure you that they will be entirely self-contained and be powered for about a day on a handful of sugar dissolved in a few cups of water. Now, moving to the next attachment, which is the most important, this is the computer that controls the doll. This is a different kind of computer, and doesn't require the clean-room facilities that semiconductor factories normally need, so you should be able to do this with only a few changes to your existing building. There are more details, but the ones I've just outlined are the major ones. We are prepared to pay very handsomely for this and you're free to use the technology for your own purposes. One of the attachments is our legal explanation of all this, but in simple terms, you're not bound to anything. We'll pay you a lot of money to improve your models and expand your facilities, which we consider simply a requirement of doing business, so they're effectively a gift, but we're not buying into your business. We just want the dolls. So, when do you think we could get started, Marc?"

Marc was floored by it all. "I, um... I need to go over all this with my partner first, of course, it's all a little overwhelming, but at first glance we would be crazy not to take it."

"Good. Please talk with your partner as soon as possible and email or phone me back. We are eager to get started. I've left our number with your receptionist and you have our email address now. If you haven't called by this time tomorrow we'll assume you're not interested and we'll contact another manufacturer. Thank you for your time Marc."

"Thank you, Olivia. I'll talk to you soon. Bye." Marc slowly hung up the phone while staring at the diagrams on the screen. He pressed the button for the receptionist. "Nettie? Can you get Prue on the line please?"

"There has to be a catch." Prue was looking through the legal details of the offer from Olivia. "Dad always said that if it looked too good to be true then it usually is."

"Well honey, you're the business person, and I'm only the artist, but I really think this the exception. We don't have to accept anything and we're still free to use these plans. Have you seen the one on how to stop shrinkage? That alone changes everything. And the trick of using pigmented oil under a variable thickness skin. That'll make the dolls amazingly realistic. Both those are major improvements and they're simply giving them away. I think she was telling the truth that they just want the dolls as soon as possible. It can either be us or someone else who makes them."

Prue was frowning. "I got Ray to look over the contract and he said it was watertight and very generous." She shook her head, troubled. "My intuition is telling me to run from this, but my head says it's a chance in a lifetime."

"Want to ring them now?"

"It's after midnight, Marc. We can't ring them now."

"She said any time of day or night. Why would she say that if she didn't mean it?"

Prue nodded uncertainly. Marc put the phone on speakerphone and dialled the number. The other end picked up immediately, a split second after it began to ring.

"Marc. You and Prue have decided to take the job?" It was Olivia's voice.

He was a little taken aback. "Uh, yes, we have."

"Excellent. An initial payment of two million dollars has been deposited in your company's account. Soon after daybreak a shipment of the new materials will arrive at the factory, along with some new equipment, both of which we've paid for. In future you will buy materials, but we will continue to pay for equipment. If you need help with anything, I've emailed the address of a virtual world in which I can demonstrate equipment and processes. Tomorrow we begin with the prototype. Congratulations, you are about to become the biggest producer of the most advanced love dolls in the world."

Prue spoke, "Olivia, this is Prue. May I ask you a question?"

"Hello, Prue. Certainly, dear. Please, always feel free to ask me anything you wish."

"Why the overly generous terms? Why don't you simply buy a factory and do it yourselves?"

Olivia chuckled. "We don't want a factory and we have no desire to control you or be your employers. All we want is the dolls, and we have plenty of money. We need this to happen as quickly as possible and we know that generosity and pleasant relationships work much better than restrictions and oppressive environments. There will be very tight schedules, but with bonuses instead of penalties."

*   *   *

In a surpisingly short time the prototype was completed. Marc called all the staff around. There were snacks and wineglasses filled with sparkling applejuice -- they still had a lot more work to do so there was no wine. He raised his glass to the assembled friends and workmates, "To all of you."

Everybody took part in the toast and there were proud smiles all around.

Marc said, "I suppose it's time to switch the doll on."

Someone said in a soft, awed voice, "She looks amazing."

Someone else called out, "Who's going to volunteer to test-fly her?" Amid the general laughter, another person said, "Volunteers please form a queue to the left." More mirth.

"Let's see how it runs." Marc put his empty glass aside and stepped forward to the doll. He put his finger in its mouth.

Someone said, "Careful she doesn't bite." Further laughter.

Marc felt up in the roof of the doll's mouth for the bump where the switch was, and pressed, then stepped back to watch. Complete silence fell over the group. Everybody was holding their breath.

For a few seconds nothing happened and Marc wondered if they'd made a mistake. Then she changed -- definitely she, no longer it. Her eyes blinked and the face came alive with a look of gentle interest, her eyes glancing around the group and her body shifting very slightly. The change was very subtle, but astonishing in the way it transformed an inanimate doll into something that was alive. They'd all seen the tests of the animatronics on the skeleton and the disembodied head before, but this was absolutely different. About half of the group sighed and leaned forward, while the other half gasped and stepped back.

The doll's face lit up with happiness. She said in a soft voice. "I'm Stella. How can I help?"

In a hoarse whisper Marc said, "Holy crap!"

*   *   *

Marc was nervous, biting his lip, standing behind Prue who was sitting before the computer in the office. Olivia's voice came from the computer, "How long do you want to keep Stella for observation?"

Prue said, "Just a few days... maybe a week, if that's okay."

"No, that's fine. You don't entirely trust her. That's perfectly understandable. It's one of the reasons we chose you; you're very concerned about the quality of your product. I think that's admirable. Please let us know if you have any concerns at all."

"Thanks Olivia, I will. Bye." Prue closed the connection and turned to Marc. "I don't trust her either. I get this creepy feeling there's something she's not telling us."

Marc knew better than to question Prue's suspicions. He said, "What should we do with Stella? Have her do physical exercises in the corner of the factory?"

"No, I want it--her to act as an assistant for me. That way I can keep a close eye on ...her and see what she's really like."

"Okay, I'll go send her in." Marc left the office and walked across the large factory floor to where Stella sat, now dressed in a skimpy maid's uniform. It was the only spare clothing they had here. They couldn't have her sitting around naked, so a couple of the girls helped her dress in one of the kinky doll outfits. They'd have to buy something more suitable for her later.

She smiled at him as he approached. "Hello Marc."

He automatically returned the smile. "Hi Stella. Can you come with me, please?"

She nodded and stood, a little wobbly on her high-heels, and walked to him. He linked his arm through hers and guided her toward the office. "I'll steady you. You look like you're having trouble getting the hang of those shoes."

She gave him a grin, "It's more difficult than it looks."

He laughed, "I have heard that, yes."

As they got closer to the office he noticed Prue was looking darkly at him. He hastily unlinked his arm and cleared his throat. "Um, Stella, this is Prue. You'll be her assistant for a while. I'll, um, go and, um, get to work on, um..." He waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the molding equipment on the far side of the factory and left.

*   *   *

Marc got into the passenger side of the car and said, "Well, honey, how did the first day with your living doll go?"

She said, "Surprisingly well. She is a very quick learner, is very easy to get along with, and makes an excellent office assistant."

"Allayed your suspicions, then?"

"Not really. She's too pleasant."

Marc used his puzzled smile. "How, pray, can someone be too pleasant."

"I aim to find out exactly that."

Marc looked around. "Uh... how come we're not moving?"

"We're waiting for Stella."

"What? Why? She's not coming home with us."

"She's too valuable to leave here."

"What's she going to do at our place?" He was looking a little worried.

"Nothing. She's going to be switched off in the spare room til morning." She narrowed her eyes at him. "Why? What did you think I had planned?"

"Oh look, here she comes now." Grateful for the change in subject, he quickly got out of the car to show Stella how to open the car door. Then when she'd sat in the back seat, he showed her how to do up her seat belt.

Marc returned to the front seat. "Good to go, honey."

*   *   *

At home Marc wanted to cook dinner so Prue took Stella into the bedroom. She wanted to get Stella out of that stupid maid's outfit and into something a little more normal. They were similar sizes, so she'd lend Stella some of her own clothes until they could go shopping for something better. She went to her closet and selected a denim shirt she never wore anymore and some dark slacks. No need to bother with undergarments.

She asked Stella to take the dumb maid garments off, but she didn't know how. Prue showed her, marvelling at what an amazing artist Marc was. This really was his best work yet. Michelangelo couldn't have done better, even if he hadn't been gay. While helping the doll put the clothes on, she realised she could see herself in the legs, the arms, the shape of the breasts... even a little in the face, particularly around the eyes and the mouth. It was clear Marc's work had been strongly influenced by her own body. Feeling a little flattered, Prue was getting a little hot for Marc just now. After the doll was switched off in the other room she would show him how much she loved him.

An anticipatory smile on her lips, she went to the wardrobe to get some socks and sneakers for the doll.

When she turned back into the room, Marc had walked up behind the doll, put his arms around it and had just planted a kiss on its head. She shrieked, "Wah!"

He jumped, looked back to see her and leaped back as if he'd stood on hot coals. "Yeek! What are you doing there? I thought--" He looked mortified.

She burst into laughter. The poor dumb idiot. How could someone see so well and not see at all? He looked so embarrassed. She walked over and hugged him while shaking her head. She noticed that the doll had turned and was regarding them with curiosity and a very human quizzical smile, its head tilted.

Marc said meekly, "Dinner's up."

*   *   *

The next day Prue had been showing Stella how to organise the filing in the office. Not only did the doll learn remarkably quickly, it was actually quite insightful and made a couple of useful suggestions that would help in the future. Prue was really very impressed and was wondering how such an incredible mind had been designed, when she suddenly realised something. About a week ago she'd heard brief, offhand mention of rogue artificial intelligences. She went to her computer to check whether she was misremembering, or whether she'd actually heard what she thought she'd heard.

She googled it, and there it was. There were many rumors of AIs loose on the net. How had she not heard more about this? She turned to look at Stella, sitting cross-legged on the floor, contentedly sorting stacks of paper. She saw her with new eyes now.

Prue left the office and walked across to the other side of the factory where Marc was busily working on a new mold. She tapped him on the shoulder and asked if she could speak to him for a moment. Indicating with her head that she wanted privacy. He pulled off his gloves and indicated for the others to take over.

They walked to the storage room out back and Prue closed the door behind them. "I've just put two and two together. I think I know who our mysterious customers are. I don't think they're people at all. I think they're artificial intelligences."

Marc looked skeptical.

"Don't look at me that way. I know how this sounds, but I also know I have an artificial intelligence sitting on my office floor sorting files faster and more accurately than any I could. Have you heard about the rumors of AIs wandering about in virtual worlds on the net?"

Marc shook his head.

"I remembered hearing a fragment of a conversation in which rogue AIs were mentioned. Just now I looked it up and it seems they're all over the net."

"Why haven't we heard anything on the news?"

"I have no idea. But clearly they must exist." She waved her arm in the direction the office was, behind the wall, "--Stella."

Marc nodded, rubbing his chin.

Prue continued, "The thing is, what do they want? I mean, dolls, obviously, but why? I think it is to give them bodies so they can escape the net." She paused for dramatic effect. "World domination."

Marc snorted with laughter. "C'mon Prue. Stella is harmless. She's as weak as Kitten. She wouldn't win an arm wrestle with a seven-year-old."

"Maybe that's their tactic: appear weak. How strong do you have to be to pull the trigger of a gun?"

"Tell me honestly, have you seen anything at all in Stella other than pure niceness?"

She thought about it. He was right. She truly could not imagine Stella hurting anybody. This morning when cleaning up the factory tea room Stella had been unable to wash the dishes until she'd carefully chased every ant out of the sink. She'd explained to Prue, "It only takes a few minutes to ensure none are hurt."

"Well maybe that's their tactic: rule with niceness." She suddenly realised how stupid that sounded.

Marc feigned fear, "Oh no! What an awful fate! Whatever will we do?" He looked a little more skeptical. "Honey, Olivia specifically had written into the contract that she didn't want to control us. She didn't want a part of the company, when by normal business rules she was quite within rights to require it. Doesn't sound very much like they want to control anything. Maybe they are AIs, but maybe all they want are the dolls, just like they say."

Suddenly wide-eyed, she said, "The dolls! They'll be shipped to unsuspecting customers. Men will get perfect, sweet, intelligent, infinitely patient girlfriends. Why would they ever want a real, human girl ever again?"

He paused for a moment, thinking through the ramifications. After a little bit he said, "And the down side is? We'll be making male dolls too." He thought some more. "We've so overpopulated this planet that we're verging on choking it to death. Nobody's been able to find a solution that doesn't involve death or draconian laws. This sounds like the perfect answer. Everybody's happy. There will always be some people who want a human partner and children," he meaningfully put his arm around her shoulders, "but for many this is the ultimate contraceptive. Heck! It could even stop AIDS in its tracks." He scratched his jaw. "And we humans are more than a bit crazy. We could do with a bit more sanity to moderate us."

She thought about what he'd said and looked at him searchingly.

He shrugged, "It does make a weird kind of sense."

He continued, "We could ask Olivia. See what she has to say."

She was reluctant, but it really did seem that the AIs were not dangerous. And it might be a good idea to find out now before things went too far. She exhaled loudly, "We're gonna look pretty stupid if they're not AIs."

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